Craft is the current buzzword in beer. In recent years, brewers have begun to lift themselves up by the bootstraps, rejuvenating the beer industry with barrel after barrel of bold beverage styles. The phenomenon has reached fever pitch, a democratic allegiance uniting nations under a pledge to good old-fashioned flavour. After sweeping the globe, the movement has at long last taken root in Thailand.
For many, craft beer refers to a more plentiful yet still growing diversity of the golden beverage. For others, the movement suggests a joyride, a pleasure trip from one drink to the next. But the label “craft” leaves much to the imagination. What, exactly, distinguishes this Age of IPAs and Amber Ales?
After World War II, the global beer stage was dominated by cheap, easy-drinking lagers. Think Budweiser, Foster’s, or Singha, the watery quaff most familiar to locals. Brewers in the US, especially, grew disenchanted with the lack of flavour in the common lager. They were inspired to create beers with greater depth and balance. They took cues from traditional brewers in Europe, but went a step further, infusing their barrels with hops and malt that pushed the limits of known styles. By the 1970s, home-brewing had taken off in the US, laying steady and solid the tracks of the future movement.
Today, the American Brewers Association defines a microbrewery — what’s referred to as “craft” nowadays — as an operation that produces less than six million barrels per year. That definition, however, seems rather shallow in light of the movement’s scope. Craft signifies a variety of brews made for quality of flavour rather than marketability. Taste rather than profit, in other words. Nuance, independence, and moxie make up the manifesto. Marked by a meteoric rise in home-brewing and a renaissance of brewpubs, venues that are low on theatrics but high on quality, craft beer has attracted a more sophisticated crowd, one devoted to the integrity of the spirit rather than its means to an end.
Fine examples of this experimental spirit reside at Mikkeller. Founded in 2014, the first true craft beer bar in Thailand introduced a bounty of styles, many high-gravity, rich in texture and colour, and hard-to-find elsewhere. Ales laced with chipotle pepper; oatmeal stouts rounded out with gourmet coffee beans; collaborations between Mikkeller, the so-called “gypsy” brewery, and Three Floyds, a microbrewery based in rural Indiana — the garden bar in Ekamai has burst onto foreign ground with aplomb. There are thirty different taps pouring rare selections each week. When a new keg is tapped, the bar owners hold a tasting party — not solely to boost profit, in itself, but rather to cultivate the growth of the craft beer community.
By the time Mikkeller had installed rotating taps at its namesake bar, Beervana had already sown the seeds of a refined beer culture in Bangkok. It began when two like-minded Americans met at a foodie festival called Big Bite Bangkok. Aaron Grieser and Brian Bartusch had taken note of the lack of good beer in Thailand, so they started talking. Whilst sharing a bottle of Brian’s home brew, a plan began to form.
Grieser’s background in corporate law and Bartusch’s connections with the food and beverage world of Bangkok formed a perfect combination for importing and distributing foreign beer. Like the legions of microbrewers spread across the US and Europe, they swore an oath to keep quality at the forefront of their business plan and soon had a refrigerated container of cold craft brew from the US en route to Bangkok. “As far as I’m aware, we’re the only beer importer who guarantees 100 percent cold-chain shipping from the brewery to the consumer,” says Bartusch.
Thanks to Beervana, several bars in the big city have begun to offer bottled brews from the likes of Rogue, Anderson Valley, and Baird Beer, a rising husband-and-wife duo based in Japan. Craft on Sukhumvit 23, an outdoor bar styled with natural wood like brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest, has eight rotating taps that pour only craft beer and dozens of bottles available throughout the year.
As taste buds continue to develop, leading drinkers to embrace the herbal punch of hops and the nutty flavour of different roasted malts, the movement seems headed for bigger and brighter things in Bangkok. The buzz is real.
By Laurence Civil